Thursday, December 26, 2013

Robots Rule My World

Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994) was an early associate of H.P. Lovecraft, whom the latter met through his involvement with the United Amateur Press Association, around 1920.  Long began publishing short stories and poetry in amateur publications at this time, and the two became friends. 

According to S.T. Joshi, the two were quite different in temperament and in world view, perhaps in part due to their difference in age:  when they met, Long was just 19, while Lovecraft was 30.  Long evidently went through ‘phases’ where his enthusiasms shifted from avant-garde literature, to mediaeval Catholicism, to Bolshevism—this material served as a basis for good natured debate between the two on aesthetics, politics and philosophy.

In The H.P. Lovecraft Companion, Philip A, Shreffler credits Long with writing one of the first Cthulhu Mythos inspired stories, The Space Eaters (1928).  In this tale, Long’s characters ‘Howard’ and ‘Frank’ come up against an ancient entity that consumes its victims’ brains.  The next year, Long published his well known Hounds of Tindalos, which makes use of a device of Lovecraft’s for allowing trans-dimensional monsters to enter our world: unusual geometric features in architecture, (see Lovecraft’s 1933 The Dreams in the Witch-House as well as part III. of The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928).

Long had an extensive free lance writing career spanning several decades.  His work included numerous short stories, novels, poetry, comic books and even a television script.  Arkham House published the first collection of his short fiction, The Hounds of Tindalos, in 1946.  Sadly, the man died in poverty and was buried in a potter’s field.  Friends later raised sufficient funds to have his remains transferred to Woodlawn Cemetery in New York, where he was buried not far from the graves of H.P. Lovecraft’s grandparents.

Frank Belknap Long’s The Robert Empire was published in 1934 in Astounding Stories.  It is probably not one of his better stories, but does contain elements that are interesting in terms of the time period in which it was written.  As in The Last Men (1934), ordinary humanity is oppressed and returned to a primitive level of existence, this time by a ruling class of robots.  Technically speaking, the robots Long describes are not automatons so much as cybernetic contraptions operated by the human brains that have been surgically installed in them.  They are fellow humans who have been enhanced technologically.  There are three hundred million of them, ruled over by the benevolent dictator and über-brain, Calcon.

Lulan and and Mago are a primitive woman and man both in the service of Calcon.  They were physiologically incapable of joining their fellow “Asian free brains” by having their brains amalgamated with machinery.  As in The Last Men, it is unclear why such vastly all-powerful and super-intelligent overlords would need to have mere human beings around at all, other than to pull levers and watch things unfold on the “telluric screen”.  The story opens with Calcon watching Lulan dance before him for entertainment—despite being made of metal, he has feelings for the woman, at least one.  But so does Mago—who is more of a man, it would seem.   A romantic triangle forms.

(On the front cover of the 1952 Avon Science Fiction Reader No. 3, Lulan is depicted nearly au natural in front of a leering robotic Calcon; in the text she is described as whirling about “and her arms were rhythmically weaving serpents in the pale light.”)

The rest of the plot is basically a version of the biblical tale of David and Bathsheba, (see 2 Samuel 11: 1-27).  Aware of Mago’s love for Lulan, but unwilling to kill him outright, Calcon contrives to put Mago in harm’s way by sending him off alone in a rocket to fight the evil Great Brain.  Readers will want to keep notes:  The “Asian free brains” are at war with the Great Brain that rules another continent—presumably North America.  A final conflagration involving a rocket attack on the volcano fortress in which the Great Brain resides may end the conflict.   But Mago is not expected to survive the battle, per the scheming Calcon’s plans.

The fate of humanity rests with Mago and his rocket mission.  Humans will either have their individuality absorbed and merged with the Great Brain, becoming mere “ganglion-flecked filaments”, or have their entire brains surgically removed and placed inside machines—maintaining their freedom, but with less of their humanity.  (It is not much of a choice).

Calcon and Lulan watch the battle on the telluric screen.  Not only is Mago successful, but he survives and returns in one piece to Lulan, much to Calcon’s dismay.  And worse is in store for the old robot.  The evil Great Brain, as a last gesture in defeat, has sent a weapon of mass destruction—a vapor bomb—to the Asian continent in a plane.  Suddenly a terrible yellow mist dissolves the “alugan” metal body cases that house all the Asian free brains, revealing their all too human innards.  There is some sympathy for Calcon as he expires—he discovers too late “that the most glorious solace life can bestow has been withheld from me.”  Only the ordinary humans survive the final battle.  It is clear at the end that Mago and Lulan are a new ‘Adam and Eve’.

Frank Belknap Long’s The Last Men (1934) also includes the ‘Adam and Eve’ motif; see Insects Rule My World .  The Robert Empire is interesting to read as an early version of themes addressed during the “Golden Age” of science fiction in the late 1930s and 1940s:  technological dystopias, catastrophic war, human identity in the face of mechanization, future totalitarianisms, robotics, and what we would call weapons of mass destruction.  There is also a prototype for television, the “telluric screen”:  enormous transmitters send waves of “photostatic energy around the world” which bounce back and are transformed into visual images.

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